South Congress is great even after hours

South Congress Shops when they're closedSouth Congress is one of the coolest places in Austin. The combination of shops like Uncommon Objects and Tesoros make shopping a lot more fun, while Guero Mexican, Home Slice Pizza and the food trucks are perfect for lunch, dinner or a snack.

Sadly, most of the shops close way too early for late evening shopping (by 8 pm on weekends, almost everything is shut down.) I’m not sure what’s up with that, but we still have fun.  How?

Even after the shops have closed, a wander down South Congress after a late dinner has become one of our favorite ways to end the evening. We stop at look in the Windows at Lucy in Disguise and check out the latest costume offerings.  We peer into the thrift stores and consignment shops to see what the hipsters will be sporting next. We look at the antiques and collectibles in Uncommon Objects and the other “junque” shops. There’s usually at least a few “mystery objects” that we spend some time trying to identify.

We look in the art gallery windows and critique the paintings, and in the bookstore window and try to count the books on display that we DON’T have on our own bookshelves (faster than counting the ones we do! Yes, I am a  proud biblioholic!)

And towards the end of the walk, there is often one lone shop open…the Big Top Candy shop with its “Open Until We Close” hours offers an after-walk treat of licorice or chocolate before we head back to the car.

No, it’s not as exciting as 6th Street, but it’s a good choice for a low-key, low-cost date night or a family stroll or a walk with the dogs. And for us, that’s good enough to keep us going back, even after the shops shut down.

Irish pub food and a punk band? Why not? It’s Austin!

Fado Irish Pub Austin TexasWe’re starting to explore some of the downtown restaurants (getting out of our North Austin world!), and the other night that meant a light dinner at Fado Irish Pub on 4th Street.

As we walked nearby, we heard the band…The Video Stars, a punk rock-clad group performing an excellent rendition of “Sweet Child of Mine”. Then we looked at the menu which promised traditional pub fare in their courtyard.

For me, the fact that they offered “boxty“, a tasty potato concoction I seldom see on menus, and the song the band was playing were enough. For Lance, the promise of a corned beef sandwich was enough to draw him in.

And we were not disappointed by any of it. The boxty I chose were crisp and hot, and were accompanied by a red pepper humus dip. Lance’s sandwich came stuffed high with corned beef, with a big pile of chips on the side (that’s fries, not potato chips.) We’ll have to return again to try a full dinner sometime soon…our light meal was a good introduction to their offerings!

The band played a variety of music, although the punk/KISS look was kind of funny when they launched into a Lady Gaga set! The courtyard was breezy, the crowd was a perfect mix of ages, and the service was excellent.

Although we don’t drink, we did see that Fado has an extensive selection of beers, ales, wines, whiskeys and single-malt Scotches, which makes it a good place to head for a few drinks, too.

Fado also has inside dining, although the music is outdoors only. The courtyard/patio is pet friendly, so our pup will probably join us the next time around.

Dogs enjoy freedom at Austin off-leash parks

Auditorium Shores  Dog Park in Austin TexasMoving from South Florida where dogs were either on a leash or in a fenced dog park or yard, it was surprising to discover the number of off-leash parks here in Austin.

We were hesitant at first.  Our dog is friendly, but what if others weren’t?  What if she took off?  (She did, but didn’t go far…only to Great Outdogs to get more treats!)  But finally we gave in, and headed to Auditorium Shores for a gathering of Austin Boxer Meetup…and some off-leash, unfenced playtime.

Maya seemed surprised when we took her leash off, but she quickly found some new friends to play with, and was off.  She played with other big dogs, and some adorable tiny ones, too. There were no aggressive dogs — just lots of playmates and dips in the river — and a few unfortunate rolls in the dirt (lovely when a wet dog rolls in the dust!  Next time the bath will be AFTER the dog park! Good thing we had an extra blanket to cover the car seat!)

Auditorium Shores (near the Long Center) isn’t Austin’s only off leash park.  There are also play areas for pups at Zilker Park and eight other Austin-area parks and recreation areas. Just make sure your dog is good about coming on command, and likes playing with canine companions of all sizes.  Then grab your pup, a water bottle and some toys and head on out.  Oh, and take along something to cover your car seat,,,just in case!

Have Frisbee, will travel!

Playground trumps crayons at Freddie’s Place

Freddie's Place in Austin on Ais4Austin.comRestaurants typically offer younger diners crayons or maybe a page or two of puzzles.  But Freddie’s has a better choice…a whole play structure within the restaurant’s outdoor dining area.

And when we went, the youngest patrons were taking full advantage it while their parents relaxed at nearby tables.  But the charm of Freddie’s Place doesn’t stop with the small fry.

Pets are welcome to dine with their people in the spacious outdoor area, and big bowls of water are provided for the canines as soon as diner’s are seated.  The backyard picnic feel of the space, complete with purple picnic tables and strings of big colorful lights made me feel at home and comfortable as soon as we arrived.  And the witty sayings on signs and waitstaff shirts (one read “Freddie’s: Home of good-looking beer and ice-cold waitresses”) make it fun to look around.  Live music adds the final Austin touch to the place. There’s even an open mic night on Wednesdays, in case you’re feeling like showing off your own talent.

And then there’s the food. Did I forget to mention the food?  Frito Pie with layers of beefy chili, cheese, jalapenos and more. Hand-cut fries.  And a veggie burger made in Freddie’s kitchen from hummus.  (It was delicious!)  The menu is as casual and comforting as the setting — no fancy fixings or complex dishes.  Freddie’s keeps it simple — and from the crowd enjoying dinner on the night we went, simple is just right.

Dog-friendly Austin welcomes Great Outdogs, a mobile dog supply truck

Great Outdogs Austin Texas Mobile Dog Supply Truck

In the land of food trucks and pet-friendly businesses, I probably shouldn’t be surprised that someone decided to combine the two to create Austin’s first mobile dog supply truck.  After all, we all love Austin’s food trucks, so why should our pups be left out of the fun?

So I was happy when I discovered Great Outdogs, the brain-child of Austin entrepreneur Matt Edwards.  “I had the website for awhile,” he said, “and this was the dream, to take outdoor dog supplies to the places where dogs play.”  Then a serendipitous discovery of the perfect truck made it possible.  “I found the truck, spent a few weeks making it over, and here I am.”

We met Matt at the off-leash dog park across from the Long Center while we were waiting for the Boxer Meetup to start. The truck really is a one-stop shop for dog lovers who enjoy Austin’s outdoors with their pets.  There were leashes, collars, toys, treats, water bowls, and of course, a good selection of dog waste bags ( a must-have for all of us owned by a dog or two!)  He even had safety flotation vests in all dog sizes for people planning on taking their pups out on the river. In fact, his truck offers over 1,300 eco-friendly, pet-friendly and budget-friendly dog items.

Matt’s truck can be found most days at the Auditorium Shores off-leash park, although he said he has plans to create a schedule for visiting several dog parks in the future.

This unique truck may be destined for great things…Matt told me the Statesman had just published a story on  his business, and he had been interviewed by local Austin TV station KVUE.   That’s great for his fledgling mobile business — and for dogs like mine who are already enjoying some of his great products.

Date nights, dinners and lunches take off at the Flying Saucer

Flying Saucer in the Triangle in Austin, TX

There are lots of lunch spots, tons of tasty places for dinner, and countless friendly places for a casual date night or get-together with friends here in Austin.  But there are few places that score on all three counts.  The Flying Saucer in the Triangle is one of those few.

I discovered the Flyer Saucer when one of the Social Marketing groups I belong to had a lunch meeting there. The pub setting was cozy, and there were more beer taps than I had ever seen in one place, but I didn’t expect the menu to be much more than snacks and appetizers.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Their large menu includes generous burgers and sandwiches, plus soups, salads, and lots of share-able snacks.  I’ve tried something new each time I visited.  So far, I’ve sampled their HUGE hot pretzels (as good as anything in Philly!), the Garden Salad with Kalamata olives and Italian cheeses, and the Hippie Burger.  All three were delicious!  Daily lunch specials get customers in and out on tight work schedules — another plus.

The Flying Saucer is also a great place for a casual dinner or an evening with friends or a date.  For those who enjoy a wide selection of beers, (we don’t drink, so please forgive my ignorance on this!), this pub is a great place to sample some of their 240+ varieties.

Trivia Nights are a great way to spend a low-key evening, or take your turn at the dart boards in true pub fashion. The restaurant and patio are family-friendly during the daytime and dinner time, and the full-service patio makes it a dog-friendly choice, too.

Easy date night at the Domain

The Domain in Austin Texas

There aren’t a lot of places that offer a date night option from pricey to darn near free all in one location, but we discovered that the Domain is pretty much on target for both.

For those of you who don’t know, the Domain is a large outdoor shopping area in North Austin.  It’s part of a multi-use community that includes the shops, several residence options, a couple of hotels and even a boutique-sized Fiat dealer.

We wandered around the shop area, stopping at the Apple Store to play with their newest toys, checking out shops for clothes we liked (and clothes that made us both laugh!)  A quick stop at Starbucks or the Steeping Room for a snack, and then some time spent sitting in the rocking chairs outside talking and enjoying the evening breeze. (When the weather is cooler, there’s even an outdoor fireplace to add another bit of romance to the evening. )

Of course, we had to take our turn climbing on the giant armadillo — hey, the kids were all gone, so we had it to ourselves!  Then some more window shopping, this time looking at things for our house (or a house of dreams.) There’s also a Dick’s Sporting Goods, so you can wander in there and plan your next outdoor adventure together.

If dinner is part of the plan, the evening at the Domain could get expensive.  There are so many yummy restaurants there, all a short stroll away, including California Pizza Kitchen, Kona Grill, Maggiano and Cru. The hard part isn’t finding a place to eat here….it’s choosing just one!

If the budget is even more generous, there is a iPic movie theatre there too. But this isn’t just any old movie theatre — the tickets range from $19 to $29 per person.  The theatre pampers movie-goers with blankets and pillows, personal wait staff, a cocktail lounge and access to a gourmet menu if you want to dine while you watch.  Yes, this is where the Domain date night can add up!

Most stores are open until about 8 or 9 pm every night except Sunday, but the restaurants stay open later and the area is very well lit, so it’s fun to wander around even after the shops close.

There was only one thing missing from the Domain — music.  In the city that bills itself as the “Music Capitol”, it was strange that not a guitar or violin or anything was heard.  This would be a perfect place for some live music! Add that into the mix, and this would be an even better date night choice.

The Domain, like so much of Austin is pet-friendly. And they mean it here. Water bowls were in front of most shops, and some welcomed well-behaved pets inside to shop. Looking back, I think more people had dogs with them than did not!  (It’s also kid-friendly, but hey, this is about date night!) Parking is free and is easy to find in and around the shopping area. 

Pecan Street Festival brings together music, art, and Austin weirdness

Pecan Street Festival 2012  on A is 4 Austin

I should have known better.  It was over 90 degrees and extreme heat and I do NOT get along well.  But away we went to the Spring Pecan Day Festival in downtown Austin.

I expected t roast and melt.  And to be honest, it was even hotter than I thought it would be.  And melt I did. Big time.

But despite the heat, this festival, held annually on 6th Street/Pecan Street (and companion to the Autumn Pecan Street Festival) was also more than I thought it would be.

First of all, it was big.  REALLY big.  It went on and on with block after block of artists’ booths, food, music and just-for-the-heck-of-it stuff for sale. And most of it was truly good.  We saw everything from hand puppets to wall-sized collages in the art booths.  There was even a petting zoo! And the food was far beyond the usual funnel cakes and corn dogs (although both of those were there, too.)  Topping my list for weirdest fair food was the alligator stand, while the homemade ice cold fresh lemonade takes the prize for “Most in Demand and Gratefully Purchased”.

Music venues all along the fair area were open for business with amazing sounds at every turn, too.  We took shelter in the Stage on 6th for a bit to get out of the sun, and were treated to fantastic classic country sounds…amazingly, even our dog and our daughter were welcome there (we’re still not quite used to the rules in Austin, so that was a surprise — in Miami, kids and pets are verbotten in bars

The highlight of the Festival for us was the discovery of a new (well, new to us) band called Les Rav.  Their music was a wonderful mix of Celtic, rock, New Age, chamber, progressive and Indy, with something special on top of all of that.  They are definitely worth a follow.

The Pecan Street Festival is a family friendly event and dogs are welcome (on leash).  If you head out to the Spring or Autumn events, I would recommend taking a good supply of water for you and your pets.  It gets hot, and bottled water is pricy.  Bring cash for food and drink — very few took cards and ATM fees were high.

Town Lake trail offers nature in the middle of the city

Town Lake in AustinThere are very few U.S. cities that offer residents a huge green oasis in the middle of the city.  Fortunately for us, Austin is one of them.

Town Lake (also known as Lady Bird Lake, or so I am told) and the associated Town Lake Trail offers Austinites and visitors walking and biking trails from just over a mile to almost 7.25 miles.  The trails are wide, and most of the route meanders along next to the lake (which looks like a small river to me, but hey, I’m not from around here!)  Wildlife is sparse, but there are swans, blackbirds and tons of butterflies.

Most of the path is shaded, which is critical given the summer temps around here.  Parking is hit or miss at several locations, but if one area is filled you’ll only have to go a short distance to the next on-street parking or off-street lot.  Most of it is free, too…another plus.

If you want to head out onto the water, there’s a boat rental here, offering canoes, kayaks and boards, plus lessons for the uninitiated.

There are lots of restaurants within a few minutes walk of the trail, so many people finish up their taste of nature with a taste of something more er, um cooked?

Pets are welcome and pretty much equal the number of people on the Town Lake Trail, but they must be on leashes and you must pick up their poop to avoid lake contamination. (Yes, there are trash cans, but bring your own bags.)  Off-road strollers do well here, although I have seen people with regular ones, too.

Batfest Brings Out Austin’s Wonderfully Weird Side

Batfest Austin

It’s no secret that Austinites love their bats.  After all, every evening from late spring to autumn hundreds of locals and visitors alike gather on downtown bridges to watch the bats emerge for their nighttime insect hunt.

But once a year, those who are willing to brave the late summer heat and crowds gather downtown to celebrate all things batty.  The 2012 Batfest is scheduled for the night of August 25th, rain (yeah right!) or shine.

The 2011 event featured a visit from the Bat Mobile and former Batman Adam West.  And I am geek enough to have been thrilled with that!

Who knows what surprises are in store for the next event?

If you plan to listen to the bands, do bring folding chairs.  Outside food and drink other than 2 sealed water bottles aren’t permitted. There’s an exception for baby food and bottles (and yes, you do have to bring a baby with the food). There is lots of good food for sale, so bring cash, too. Pets on leashes are welcome, too.